The gravestones of our region’s cemeteries tell a tale of their own – if you know where to look. As one Lake in the Hills researcher discovered, the lives of the interred are just as colorful as their memorials.
Was there really a body beneath that gravestone in a Huntley backyard? Laurel Mellien didn’t think so. Why, then, was the gravestone there?
Mellien, a cemetery art researcher, had to find some answers. She knocked on the front door and introduced herself.
“The homeowner showed me the stone and how it was under a woodpile,” recalls Mellien. “I saw it had a death date of 1970 on it.”
Intrigued by the discovery, the Lake in the Hills resident started researching. She soon had an answer: There was no body in the backyard.
“The death date was wrong,” Mellien says. “Someone had inscribed it wrong. How it got in that backyard I have no idea. I called the woman and said she didn’t have a body there, that the individual’s body was actually in Lake Zurich.”
By now, Mellien is used to the crazy questions and the funny looks she gets when people learn that she studies gravestone artwork. But she’s made quite the living among the dead. Mellien’s quest has taken her to every cemetery in McHenry and Kane counties, and to cemeteries across the country.
Looking only at the artwork, she can tell you significant details about a person’s life. Give her time to do genealogical research, and she’ll spin a tale. Tragic deaths, sordid affairs, lives invested in prominent fraternal organizations – she’s found it all, and she has the collection to prove it.
Locally, you might recognize Mellien for her Headstones & History talks at local libraries and history groups. But on the national scale, she’s gained recognition for her deep and colorful understanding of Victorian-era macabre and the way cemeteries memorialize lives well lived – and lives extinguished too soon.
“People were fascinated by death and mourning, and they visited cemeteries often during this time,” she says. “It was important that the artwork properly represented the deceased, because future generations would see these stones, and you wanted to be properly remembered. These stones cost a lot of money, purchased out of limited incomes. So they wanted them to be right. This was the monument to parents and grandparents forever.”
Mellien’s interest in gravestone art began on a family trip to Springfield, Ill. Touring Oak Ridge Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, she and her son rented a cassette tape that highlighted the cemetery’s famous residents and their graves.
“In between the people, the tape would talk about symbolism,” Mellien says. “They’d say, ‘if you look at this symbol, it means this.’ I was fascinated. I didn’t realize there was so much thought and symbolism behind the pictures and the artwork on the stones.”
Within two years, she’d amassed enough research to host a photo exhibit at Huntley’s public library, where she was working as a coordinator of children’s programming.
“There was a wide age range and a lot of people were interested for a variety of reasons, sometimes because it was a little bit creepy, other times because it helped their genealogical research,” she says.
In 2007, Mellien’s research led her down a new path as she was recovering from an illness. She decided to make a career of her hobby. Intent on writing a book about McHenry County’s cemeteries, she started digging up newspapers and genealogical records. She visited every cemetery in the county – nearly 100 in all, from big ones to backyard plots. She joined historical societies and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Then, in 2009, she was invited to speak to DAR about cemetery art symbolism.
“Immediately, I had two people from the group who wanted me to speak at other organizations, and from then on I have never not had a program on my calendar,” says Mellien. “It just kept snowballing and building.”
She now gives talks on several subjects at local libraries, historical societies and genealogical groups. She has spoken at Crystal Lake’s Raue Center for the Arts and at a historical society benefit inside a funeral home.
“I find this kind of work very appealing,” she says. “I go out in the Midwest now, photographing all of the tree stump memorials, chairs – everything I can find. I’ve been to more than 1,000 cemeteries and have more than 100,000 photos.”
Types of Memorials
President Lincoln’s tomb influenced Mellien’s research in more ways than one. The Civil War marked a turning point in how Americans mourned the dead.
“Before the Civil War, you died at home, surrounded by family members, and were buried in the local cemetery, with beautiful mourning traditions,” says Mellien. “The Civil War shattered all of these concepts. Sons were being killed and buried where they fell on the battlefields. They didn’t have that place to mourn, and I think that’s why some things from that era seem so over-the-top, because they needed to mourn.”
Mellien has collected many images from around McHenry County, especially at Crystal Lake’s Union Cemetery. The Civil War soldier, in particular, interests her because of its composition. It’s made of “white bronze,” a brand of zinc memorials made popular in the late 1800s. These bluish-gray monuments, used for statues and headstones, were a common substitute for stone and have proven to be fairly weather-resistant.
“They were cast out in Bridgeport, Conn., where the primary foundry was,” says Mellien. “Then, sections were shipped to subsidiaries throughout the nation. Our closest subsidiary was American Bronze, out of Chicago.”
You can usually identify these zinc memorials by a plaque affixed to their backside. A close look at the plaque beneath Crystal Lake’s soldier reveals an error.
“If you look for the subsidiary name on the bottom, they spelled it wrong on our memorial,” Mellien says. “It’s written as American Brnoze Company. It’s the only misprint I’ve ever seen on a white bronze.”
While you’re in Union Cemetery, look for the intricately carved double tree monument – a stone marker in the shape of two interwoven trees. Such markers are rare, says Mellien, and are typically a symbol of married couples – except at Union Cemetery.
“The husband died and they bought the marriage trees, but because the husband died so early, the wife remarried and spent most of her life with her second husband,” says Mellien. “Family members’ names are on the other tree, where the wife’s name would have been. The woman is actually buried somewhere else in Union Cemetery with her second husband.”
In Algonquin Cemetery stands the towering Guy Frary family monument. It was so large that it arrived to town on four flatbed railcars and caused a stir among residents concerned about its potential to topple over.
“They had to slide these sections onto telephone poles, laid on their sides, and pull these monuments up Main Street with 12 horses,” says Mellien. “And there was a huge crowd at the cemetery when they actually stood it up. Many of the men in the crowd had bet money against a successful outcome. But it stands tall today.”
Like many of the monuments Mellien photographs, the Frary monument provided a powerful remembrance of loved ones.
“Guy Frary was a successful businessman, and he wanted to see the top of the tribute from his front porch,” says Mellien. “It was for his wife, and he could see it above the trees.”
Beyond the northwest suburbs you may spy the occasional picture memorial, comprised of a weather-protected photo affixed to a headstone. These were first produced in the U.S. by J.A. Dedouch Company, in Chicago, and were especially popular around the early 1900s.
Some picture stones show the person at a happy period in life, like a wedding. There are many examples in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, in the town of Hillside, which has a heavily Italian population.
Truly macabre memorials depict postmortem photos, showing the deceased lying in the casket or looking “alive-yet-dead.”
“They’d prop the person up, eyes open, if they were children,” says Mellien.
About a year after she found the erroneous gravestone in Huntley, Mellien received an unexpected call. The homeowners were selling the house and needed proof that there was no body in the backyard.
“I called the buyer, who was living in the Lombard area, and said if she got a copy of the obituary, it tells where the person is buried,” says Mellien. “I told her, ‘If you get a copy of the obit, the appraiser will know that the person isn’t there and the death date was wrong. They have a copy at the library in Crystal Lake.’ It was dinner time, so I offered to fax the obit in the morning. But the buyer said, ‘No, I’m driving there right now to get it.’”
In her pursuit of McHenry County’s macabre, Mellien has unearthed many fascinating stories like this – so many, in fact, that she’s been collecting them in her own book. She expects to release the self-published title soon.
“My entire book is filled with unusual deaths,” she says. “My book could make ‘1,000 Ways to Die.’ I have so many favorite ones, and I’ve found them in old newspapers.”
Poisonings, suicides, train deaths – she’s found a variety of sordid tales, all described in gruesome details by newspapers of the day. Few, though, compare to the grave robbery in Algonquin. Police in Chicago had received a tip that the body was being shipped in a barrel.
“They put it under surveillance, to see who would pick it up,” says Mellien. “The courier first tore off the false label, revealing a tag underneath that showed it was going to the medical college.”
Police apprehended the courier, returned the body to Algonquin and arrested the two men who had taken the body: Soloman Babbitt and a Dr. Winslow. Both were taken to Algonquin for trial.
“Six hundred people attended, and when Dr. Winslow went to give his testimony, people rushed toward the front, shouting, ‘Rope him and hang him,’” Mellien says. “When the doctor was released on bail, he headed for Pike’s Peak and was never seen again.”
Mellien finds her most consistent audience among genealogical researchers tracing their family histories. The techniques she’s used to research local cemeteries offer many clues for descendants. One of her go-to sources is the McHenry County Genealogical Society’s four-volume set cataloging every row and burial in area cemeteries, from early settlers to the mid-1990s. The set is available in most area libraries, she says.
“You can see where they’re buried, and they have maps of the cemeteries, so you can see plots by row and section.”
Libraries around Kane County and greater Barrington have similar resources, including rooms dedicated to genealogical studies and local indexes. Some resources are also available online.
Mellien loves her work and loves sharing her passion. It’s not just the stories of local lives that fascinate her. It’s also the way these lives are memorialized, for perpetuity, in our cemeteries.
“Art symbolism is one thing that just fascinates me, the idea behind the pictures,” she says. “I like the creepiness a little bit, the macabre. I enjoy the research, the fresh air, being outside and the art. It doesn’t get any better than that.”